This month, Coffee House Press is publishing Margret Aldrich's history of the Little Free Library movement, The Little Free Library Book. The book is the second volume in Coffee House's Books in Action series, an initiative launched in 2013 to publish books and develop programs that encourage and nurture the literary arts. Aldrich, a former editor at Utne Reader, spoke to us about why people all over the world are setting up libraries in their front yards.
The Little Free Library movement seems to be straight-forward: take a book, leave a book. What inspired you to write The Little Free Library Book?
That’s one of the fascinating things about Little Free Libraries: there is a lot to love about them above and beyond the exchange of books. (Though, hey, trading books is pretty great, too.) They build community in neighborhoods. They spread the joy of reading and help further literacy. They spark creativity and allow people to express themselves through the library’s design – whether it’s built to look like a birdhouse, robot, or Volkswagen bus.
I first wrote about Little Free Libraries while an editor at Utne Reader and had been infatuated with them ever since, so I was thrilled when Coffee House Press invited me to author the book. I had never seen such a simple idea blossom into something so positive, so quickly.
Why do you think there's been such an overwhelming response to this movement since Todd Bol founded it in Hudson, Wisc. in 2009 by setting up a library in his mother's yard? What chord does this movement touch in people?
I think it all comes down to connection. Many of the people I talked to while writing the book mentioned how starting a Little Free Library had been a catalyst for meeting neighbors and starting conversations. Often, they said they’d met more people in the week after launching a library than they’d met in all the years that they had lived on their block. It also connects them to the 25,000 other LFL owners, aka “stewards,” around the world. Some stewards even seek out Little Free Libraries when on vacation, like they’re birdwatchers searching for exotic species.
It’s also amazing to see the powerful things that people are doing with their libraries. A program in India uses Little Free Libraries to make books available to schoolchildren, for example, and officers in the Los Angeles Police Department use Little Free Libraries to strengthen their relationships with the public.
You obviously must have heard a lot of interesting stories about people's experiences with Little Free Libraries during your research for this book. What story told most resonated with you?
It’s tough to pick only one: There’s the nine-year-old boy in Kansas who fought the city council to save his Little Free Library, the man in a remote part of Georgia who registered his LFL as a geocaching site, the New York architects who designed modern Little Free Libraries that fit into the city, the band Foster the People who organized people to build 12 Little Free Libraries in less than five hours.
My favorite story from the book might be the two women, Amy Tingle and Maya Stein, who rode a tandem bike more than 1,000 miles from Colorado to Wisconsin last summer, building Little Free Libraries and writing crowd-sourced poetry along the way. The photos of their experience are phenomenal, too.
Do you have a Little Free Library set up in front of your house? If so, what kinds of books do you stock it with and if not, why not?
Yes, we have a Little Free Library posted in front of our Minneapolis bungalow, and it stayed busy all winter – even on the coldest days. It’s really become self-sustaining. While I still regularly add kids’ books (which always fly off the shelf), an occasional novel (with a mini-review written on a Post-It), plus my copy of The New Yorker (when I’ve finally admitted that I’m not going to read it cover to cover), visitors keep it well stocked. They drop off everything from high-quality hardcover bestsellers to parenting books to comics. I’ve even gotten thank-you notes and homemade bookmarks. Our Little Free Library belongs to the neighborhood.